11 May 2021 | Comment | Article by Phoebe Osborne

Grandmother’s mesothelioma claim settles 5 days before trial, following historic asbestos exposure

A grandmother with a terminal diagnosis of mesothelioma has decided to speak out for the first time about the trauma she’s facing because of exposure to asbestos decades ago.


Erika Willis (pictured above with her granddaughter) instructed Phoebe Osborne, Senior Associate in the Asbestos team to investigate her claim, after being diagnosed with mesothelioma in November 2019, at the age of 65. Erika worked as a former General Post Office (GPO) Telephonist and in recent years as an administrative assistant at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire.

It was quickly established that Erika had been in contact with asbestos as a young woman, in the early 1970s, while working at two Telephone Exchanges – one in Monument, London and the other in Silverthorn, in Chingford, Essex.

It’s alleged that Erika worked close to GPO Technicians and Engineers, who disturbed asbestos-containing materials in her presence while they carried out work to the exchanges. She also encountered asbestos fire stop bags, which were commonly used to pack out the floors and spaces to prevent the spread of fire before non-asbestos alternatives were widely introduced in later years.

Client, Erika Willis, said:

My work as a GPO Telephonist in the 1970s has taken away my retirement plans.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Erika endured first line chemotherapy with unpleasant side effects. This was compounded by the fact she was unable to spend time with her friends and family. Despite this, Erika was keen to embark on an immunotherapy clinical trial but sadly she became too unwell to tolerate any further treatment.

After receiving this disappointing news, the Royal Mail Group maintained their denial of liability for her claim, inviting her to provide her evidence on commission. Erika remained dignified and stoic, providing her deposition witness evidence on commission in November 2020, via video link.

Erika’s solicitor assisted with these arrangements, which allowed Erika to provide evidence in the comfort of her own home without the need to attend the Royal Courts of Justice. This was particularly important given the global COVID- 19 pandemic and Erika’s increased respiratory risk.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Erika has not been able to spend quality time with her family and friends and grandchild. Her advancing mesothelioma has also meant she has needed to rely on her husband and family to carry out the household jobs she took pride in doing before her diagnosis - including, cooking, shopping, laundry, as well as maintaining the family home and garden.

Even though Erika endured months of uncertainty as to when she would see her family and friends, her legal claim was listed for a three-day trial at the Royal Courts of Justice between 16-19 April 2021.

Despite her increasing reliance on her Macmillan nurse and Mesothelioma UK nurse, Kate Slaven at Royal Papworth, Erika remained well and was ready to attend trial.

After a long battle, Royal Mail Group formally accepted liability and a financial award in her favour by way of an out of court settlement was agreed in April 2021, five days before trial.

This financial assistance will now help Erika manage her devastating illness and enable her to make more precious memories with her loved ones now the COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to relax.

Speaking of her experience, Erika Willis said today:

“In my case, I was exposed to asbestos as a teenager, unaware of the dangers and now it has changed mine and my family’s lives. I endured a long legal battle during the pandemic with the support of my legal team and I hope that, by holding Royal Mail Group to account, I might be able to help other former GPO Telephonists in a similar position to me, it might even help them pay for treatment and prolong their quality of life.” 

Phoebe Osborne, Senior Associate at Hugh James said today:

“Sadly, Mesothelioma has taken a huge toll on Erika’s health. Her future plans for retirement and precious time left with her grandchild, family and friends has been shattered. Whilst a financial settlement can now enable Erika to access care and support, it cannot undo the damage which has been caused by asbestos exposure. Erika is now determined to raise awareness of the dangers and life changing consequences people have suffered through asbestos exposure. She also hopes others are helped through learning about her own experience and fewer lives will be affected in the future by this devastating illness.”

If you would like further information or advice, visit our Asbestos page.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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